Title: Get Real Paid Title: Nobody's Fault But My Own
Artist: Beck Artist: Beck
Year: 1999 Year: 1998
Album: Midnite Vultures Album: Mutations
Last month, I ran out of days in my week of 1998 to feature a song from what is probably my favorite Beck album, Mutations. I promised myself I wouldn't make that mistake again this month with Midnite Vultures, a record that seems less attractive to me now than it did 15 years ago but retains most of its charms.
It's kind of difficult to know what was going on with Beck following the critical and commercial success of Odelay in 1996. Did he reach an artistic impasse and find himself temporarily lost, not knowing what to do next? Or did he feel a sense of relief that he had found some financial success and could now make whatever music he wanted without regard for commercial reward? Recent interviews suggest he was trying to anticipate what people wanted from him and he was sort of reacting to their responses. Given that neither of these albums (which couldn't be more different) did not achieve anything near the success of Odelay, perhaps that wasn't a very good strategy. But in terms of creativity, it worked out really well in my opinion because this pair of unusual records mark a time when Beck was the most unpredictable and versatile musician making music.
I suppose many consider Midnite Vultures to be a parody. It certainly has a sense of humor but I've never viewed it as insincere. Beck has always shown a penchant toward hip-hop and R'n'B is just down the street. Beck has acknowledged the influence of R. Kelly on many of the tracks (most notably "Debra") and it seems to me there is an obvious nod to Prince. "Get Real Paid" owes a debt to Kraftwerk and apparently vocal processors (yes, that is Beck singing). I love the jittery synthwork and vocal polyphony that rounds out the final minute of the record. And who can resist the couplet Thursday night, I think I'm pregnant again/touch my ass if you qualify?
The dirgelike "Nobody's Fault of My Own" from Mutations blends Beatles-style Indian accents with unplugged Nirvana (think "The Man Who Sold the World"). I find this song to be intriguing in the way it avoids making a decision about whether its major or minor—the tonic chord (C) is almost always absent the third and the prominent use of the bIII (Eb) and bVI (Ab) serve to keep the key of C Major obscured. (I drew the conclusion of major based on the vocal melody.) Many, if not all, of the songs on Mutations use similarly creative chord progressions and the songs themselves are granted center stage thanks to stripped-down arrangements.
Since this pair of albums, Beck seems to have found his "sound" which is kind of unfortunate in some ways. The more mature Beck still makes great records and writes great songs but I find myself longing for the surprises that met me with Mutations and, especially, Midnite Vultures.